- Council on Foreign Relations
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The Cold War and Its Demise
How did the age of deregulation come about? Its arrivalalong with the end of the Cold Warwas neither predictable nor predicted. Still, it is both useful and necessary to retrace this historical transition to appreciate what has changed and what has stayed the same.
The Cold War dominated four and one-half decades of world history, an era like few others in that the competition among the great powers of the day was kept within strict bounds. The contrast with the two previous great-power struggles of the century, both of which culminated in prolonged, destructive conflicts, could not be more marked.
More than anything else, the Cold War derived its "coldness" from the advent of nuclear weapons. The presence of two vast nuclear arsenals and with them the danger of escalation to a nuclear exchange created a mutual interest in avoiding war that dwarfed all other considerations for both the United States and the Soviet Union. Actual war would have meant devastation to the two countries and much of the world so long as both superpowers retained arsenals that could destroy the other's society and economy regardless of which of them struck first. Winston Churchill captured this irony well: "Safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation." For others, it was captured even better by the concept of mutual assured destruction and its acronym, MAD.
It is not enough to point out that both Washington and Moscow went to great lengths to avoid nuclear war; what is also true is that leaders of the two superpowers went togreat lengths to avoid any direct war, lest limited conflict escalate and become unlimited. The result was the emergence of reflexes, understandings, and agreements that bounded competition between the two rivals.
Much of the competition in the military realm involved amassing force that would not be used. Both countries built ever more capable and robust inventories of nuclear weapons. At the same time, the United States and the Soviet Union deployed forces in and around the territory of friends and allies for multiple purposes: to deter attacks, to provide defense if deterrence failed, and, in the case of the USSR, to pressure the West while ensuring the continued existence in Eastern and Central Europe of authoritarian governments loyal to Moscow.
In addition, military competition between the two rivals entailed two other dimensions. First, both superpowers used force to protect clients against external or internal challenge. Thus, the United States intervened directly to defend South Korea after the North invaded and again in South Vietnam against both North Vietnam and the Communists of the South. Second, and on a much smaller scale, the United States deployed force on several occasions within the Western Hemisphere and the Middle East. The Soviet Union periodically intervened (or threatened to) in Eastern Europein East Germany and Hungary in the 1950s, Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, Poland in the 1980sto quell liberal movements. The largest use of force by the USSR, however, contributed to its undoing: the effort begun in 1979 to change and then bolster the government of Afghanistan against rebel forces.
This last point highlights an additional, "indirect" dimension of superpower military competition. Each provided significant military support to friendly governments to help ward off challenges to their authority and to promote security from foes both domestic and foreign. The two also provided support to the respective foes of the other's allies; thus, the United States fought in Vietnam against Soviet-supplied arms while the Soviets had to contend in Afghanistan with antigovernment troops armed in part with U.S.-supplied weapons.
The regulation of U.S.-Soviet relations was less than total. An attempt in 1972 by Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon to codify ground rules constraining competitionin effect, to enact a de facto concertfailed to make a discernible difference. Neither side was prepared to foreswear seeking unilateral advantage. Indeed, the two approached detente from different perspectives: for the United States, the challenge was how to restrain competition in the context of a competitive relationship, while for the USSR it was how to compete effectively in the context of a restraining relationship.
Still, competition proved to be limited. Rules of the road developed that limited how far either side would go to assist a client against a client of the other. This became most apparent during the October 1973 Middle East conflict, when at various junctures both Washington and Moscow made clear that they would not stand by and see their respective alliesIsrael in the case of the United States, Egypt and Syria in the case of the Soviet Uniondecimated. There was in addition the acceptance of de facto spheres ofinfluenceEastern Europe for the USSR, the Americas for the United Stateswhere each placed limits on what it was prepared to do to challenge the position of the other, lest it provoke a crisis that could result in direct confrontation.
There were also more formal agreements in the arms control realm. Several of these placed ceilings on inventories, introducing an important degree of predictability into the entire relationship, even if they did not always lead to reduced military capabilities. There was as well the 1972 limit on ballistic missile defense systems, an agreement that codified stability through mutual vulnerability. There was even limited cooperation in resisting the spread of nuclear weapons capabilities to others, perhaps because the two most powerful states shared an interest in seeing their relative status preserved.
All in all, the Cold War proved to be a highly structured and regulated world. It was dominated by two principal centers of decision making, each heading an alliance or alliances. Any system dominated by two centers of decision making as opposed to a half dozen or more enjoys the inherent advantage of being sturdier and more manageable. It tends to be less dependent on diplomatic acrobatics, in part because there is a smaller number of significant decision makers to contend with. Moreover, the Soviet state was dedicated to controlling national aims in Eastern Europe and within the multinational empire that was the Soviet Union itself. And although the relationships between the United States and both NATO and other allies were much less hierarchical than their East bloc counterparts, Washington did enjoy a degree of influence that gave it considerable leverage.
Also shaping the Cold War world was the fact that the international political and military institutions of the day were dominated by governmentsabove all, the United States and the Soviet Union. Such institutions enjoyed little autonomy. The United Nations was a victim of the Cold War, more a reflection of its divisions or a locale where they could be played out than anything else. (Soviet support for U.N.-sponsored initiatives against Iraq in 1990-91 underlined the reality that the Cold War had essentially ended.) Economics was the one dimension of international relations that largely excluded the USSR and the rest of the Communist world. In this area, institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were dominated at first by the United States alone and later by wealthy European states, Japan, and the major oil exporters as well.
This highly structured world allowed U.S. foreign policy the luxury of being equally structured. American foreign policy during the Cold War was dominated by containment; in George Kennan's memorable prescription, "the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies ... designed to present the Russians with unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world."
How did the containment doctrine manifest itself in practice? Containment reflected the primacy of the general and global over the particular and local. What mattered most was supporting governments that were anti-Soviet or anti-Communistor that were at least opposing governments or forces associated with the Soviet Union or communism. What mattered far less was the political and economic nature of the governments the United States supported or even the "rightness" of the details to a local dispute. (One result of these priorities was that many members of the "free world" were anything but free for their citizens.) Containment became a triumph of a narrow realism, of carrying out a foreign policy largely based on the external rather than the internal behavior of governments and other forces.
Within the United States, the policies undertaken early in the Cold War pursuant to containment (and the funding of tools to promote them) were widely supported by Republicans and Democrats alike. Congress routinely acquiesced to presidential leadership, in large part because many believed that in time of war (the Cold War being a form of permanent war) it was right to rally behind the commander in chief. There was also a willingness to defer to the executive branch on the grounds that it was better informed. And even where congressional acquiescence was missing, the president was still able to dominate foreign policymaking because of the relative weakness of levers available to Congress and, under the Constitution, the unique ability of the executive to take initiative overseas. Only the president can send troops abroad, negotiate treaties and other pacts, and speak in the name of the American people to peoples and governments of other lands.
Consensus over foreign policynever complete to begin withunraveled in earnest in the late 1960s. Vietnam was the most salient cause, as a significant minority (if not a majority) of the country and Congress came to the conclusion that U.S. interests at stake in Vietnam did not justify the investment and/or that U.S. policy was flawed in design, execution, or both. Doubts created by Vietnam were reinforced by Watergate. At issue was not simply where and how to apply containment but the desirability of executive leadership in the application.
Despite important exceptions, including the decisions to resist Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and match the Soviet militarybuildup, agreement over the goals and conduct of U.S. foreign policy eroded further over the next 15 years, i.e., from 1975 to 1990, during the post-Vietnam period. This evolution in attitudes reflected the residue of the bitter divisions over Vietnam and a waning of the Cold War's intensity. Major debates raged over how to respond to the conflict in El Salvador and the emergence of a Soviet-supported regime in Nicaragua, over whether to counter the deployment of a new generation of intermediate-range Soviet missiles in Europe, and over the emphasis that ought to be accorded human rights concerns in Communist and friendly non-Communist countries alike. It was also a period of growing tension between the two branches of government as Congress asserted new powers through legislation and new capacities through the expansion of staff. What had been for some an imperial presidency became for others imperiled.
Demographic changes within the United States also had a corrosive effect upon the old foreign policy consensus. In the post-World War II era, U.S. foreign policy was dominated by an elite that was for the most part highly educated, internationally and especially European-oriented, and based in the Northeast. This generation took from history the lesson that the greatest threat to world peace was American isolation. American effort and leadership, something best represented by victory in World War II, became a model of international engagement.
A half-century later, the country's population had grown to over 260 million, up from 140 million. Americans of European descent no longer dominated. Population shifted away from the Northeast toward the Sunbelt, where people often were more interested in developments to their south or in Asia and the Pacific rather than across the Atlantic. Together, these developments tended to dilute the intensity of ties to Europe. In addition, by the mid-1990s, most of those Americans whose world views had been forged by events early this century had either retired or died. Korea and more often Vietnam were the defining international experiences for younger generations. If Korea left many Americans frustrated, Vietnam left even more questioning the morality of U.S. leadership and the utility of military forceto the extent that international developments left any impression on them at all.
The intellectual debate also changed. In the wake of World War II, there were few institutions and few publications devoted to international affairs. The Council on Foreign Relations and its quarterly Foreign Affairs were dominant. Three networks and a handful of newspapers shaped elite opinion. Within a few decades, think tanks, publications, and channels all had proliferated, representing diverse views and styles of presentation, thereby further dividing what had been a largely cohesive foreign policy establishment.
The final reason for the breakdown of consensus over foreign policycertainly the proverbial straw that broke the camel's backwas its success. Containment was no longer relevant with the Soviet threat not only contained but eliminated. Suddenly it became much more important to discuss the inherent importance of interests rather than simply respond to challenges to counter orpreempt a global competitor. And without a clear and overriding threat or ideological adversary, it became more difficult to justify the expenditure of resources on behalf of national security. The traditional "guns-versus-butter" debate shifted in favor of the latter, given the reduction in external threats to the country's well-being and the corresponding increase in threats to economic and social welfare from within.
What led to the West's victory in the Cold War is worth contemplating. In part it was fundamental Soviet weakness, the result of the USSR's being top-heavy, overcentralized both politically and economically. Here it is possible to cite a long list of consequences, including an unproductive economic system, corruption, the pull of nationalism and the failed attempts to repress ethnicity and religion, political alienation and the collapse of communist ideology, the absence of a mechanism for orderly succession, and persistent poor leadership.
The USSR was a victim as well of what the historian Paul Kennedy termed "imperial overstretch," the tendency of great powers to undermine the economic sources of their greatness by devoting too much of their wealth and energies to overseas adventures rather than to investments that would allow them to maintain their competitive position. The Soviet Union was a classic case of a country that devoted scarce resources to overseas ventures while it starved its own society. It could have had its cake and eaten it, but only if it had reduced its allocation of resources to defense, been less eager to support far-flung expansionist enterprises, and, more important, undertaken economic reforms that would have reduced the size and role of the state. It is difficult to find fault with Henry Kissinger's assessment that "the Soviet Union was neither strong enough nor dynamic enough for the role its leaders had assigned it."
But the Soviet Union lasted 75 years. It was by no means inevitable that it would collapseand certainly not when it did. Mikhail Gorbachev clearly hastened the end. His principal reformsperestroika and glasnostweakened central authority and increased the power of the media and civil society at the expense of the existing order. Gorbachev could have held the country together longer, but only if he was willing to be as repressive as some of his predecessors, something he clearly rejected. The weakening of central control, and the reluctance to act brutally to reassert such control, doomed a system (and a state) that required repression to exist.
But American and, more broadly, Western strength also contributed significantly to the breakup of the Soviet empire. Both what the United States was and what it did had an impact. By what the United States "was" I mean the example of and the impression made by American society. The clear success of capitalism and the vitality of American democracy put a lie to Soviet predictions of victory and made the Soviet Union look poor and gray by comparison, which it was. This perception led to a loss of faith in Communist ideology and widespread public cynicism throughout the USSR.
American and other Western efforts in the defense realm also certainly helped persuade the Soviet Union not to use force. The result was to neutralize the one dimension of power in which the Soviet Union was truly super and to place the competition in realms in which the United States and the West enjoyed marked advantages. As the English historian Michael Howard pointed out, "The Cold War was won by the triumph of the global market economies over the Marxist-Leninist command economiesor, if you prefer, pluralist democracy over totalitarianism. But this triumph was made possible only by the stable framework provided by military deterrence." Thomas Powers makes a related point: "Time is what containment took and time is what the fear of nuclear war gave us."
A number of specific decisions in the defense realmthe Berlin airlift, decades of NATO modernization and expansion, the willingness to deploy cruise and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in the 1980s in response to the presence of Soviet SS-20 missiles, the arming of the Afghan resistance, a heightened emphasis on ballistic missile defensealso hastened the end of the Cold War. These and other Western actions denied the Soviet Union any sense of momentum. It thus became impossible for even the most committed Communist to argue with any degree of credibility that history was moving in the USSR's favor.
The advent of detentethe mellowing of the U.S.-Soviet relationship as compared with both the Cold War and peaceful coexistencedenied the USSR an enemy. In the process, it became harder to justify the political repression and permanent war footing at home. Detente also helped open up the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc to visitors and ideas, thereby undermining the official monopoly over information. Last but far from least was the cumulative effect of decades of military buildup and the extension of military and economic assistance to friends, allies, and proxiescompetitions much more easily sustained by the more productive economies of the West. In short, the Cold War was not simply lost by one side, it was won by the other. The lesson is clear: what the United States does and does not do can help determine history.
The result of all these changes and the Cold War's end is a very different United States that has to contend with a very different world. As Kenneth Waltz noted, "Wars that eliminate enough rival great powers are system-transforming wars. The Cold War's elimination of the Soviet Union certainly qualifies; while multipolarity can in principle survive the loss of one of its protagonists, bipolarity cannot. It would be strange indeed if the policies and institutions that for the most part served this country well for the Cold War were able to do the same in the world that is takingits place.
Woody: Movies from Manhattan
By Julian Fox
Copyright © 1996 Julian Fox.All rights reserved.
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